After several years of frugal festivities, consumers are once again turning to credit for their Christmas shopping.
Credit card purchases jumped more than 7 percent in November and surged again in early December, according to First Data, which tracks consumer payments. A survey by Consumer Reports found that shoppers planned to charge an average of $756 this holiday, up 6 percent from the previous year, though the number of people who plan to use credit has remained steady.
“If past behavior is any predictor, the closer you get to Dec. 25 the more likely you’re running into that store and buying whatever you can,” said Ed Ferrell, director of Consumer Reports’ national research center. “Plastic really starts flying more.”
On one hand, the rise of credit can be a boon for retailers and the broader economy. It has helped consumers’ spending rise faster than their incomes, which in turn drives economic growth. Experts also say the drop in the nation’s jobless rate and the bounceback in consumer confidence indicators have also made Americans less cautious about borrowing.
Several key groups have raised their forecasts for holiday sales. The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, now expects retail sales in November and December to increase 3.8 percent compared with last year, a whole percentage point above its original projection. ShopperTrak, which analyzes the number of people visiting stores, forecast sales would grow 3.7 percent. However, it predicted Americans would do their shopping in fewer trips.
But spending growth fueled by credit card debt could come with a price. Consumers’ heavy borrowing during the boom years helped trigger the bust and has weighed down the recovery. Though America’s debt load has dropped significantly since the financial crisis in 2008, the recent uptick in debt has some experts questioning whether consumers are headed for a holiday hangover. The survey by Consumer Reports found that about 6 percent of consumers, or 14 million Americans, are still paying off credit card bills from last Christmas.
“To me it seems horrifying,” Ferrell said. “It can hurt you personally financially, but for the economy at large it’s a fairly small number.”
Travis Pizel, 37, is still trying to wrangle down debt from more than a decade of Christmases. The Minnesota resident used to be among the deal-hungry hordes camped outside of Best Buy on Black Friday. One time he scored a new computer, a camcorder and other electronics equipment — “not because we needed it or because we had the money for it, but because it was a good deal,” he recalled.
“That was the trap we fell into,” Pizel said.
Pizel and his wife thought they were being responsible by paying the minimum required on their credit card bills each month, not realizing their remaining balance was skyrocketing to over $100,000. When their lender increased their monthly minimum in 2009, Pizel realized he couldn’t afford the payment — it had ballooned to an amount larger than his mortgage.
“That should’ve been a clue right there that something was out of whack,” he said.
Pizel enrolled in debt management plan with Maryland-based CareOne, and has now paid off half of what he owes and is credit-card free. Instead of spending as much as $600 on each of his two kids, he budgets about $100 each for the holidays.
“It hasn’t reduced our Christmas enjoyment at all,” Pizel said.
According to an analysis by CreditDonkey, a card comparison site, a shopper who charges about $700 on a credit card with a 13 percent interest rate and makes only the minimum payments will spend four years whittling down the balance. The total interest paid will be nearly $200. Meanwhile, a consumer who puts down $64 each month will bring the balance to zero in one year and pay $52 in interest.
Recent federal legislation aimed to help consumers understand the magnitude of their debt by requiring credit card companies to disclose how long it will take to pay off a balance if only the minimum payment is made. However, a study released last month by Boston College marketing professor Linda Court Salisbury and several coauthors found that the information had no impact on how much consumers pay toward their bills. In fact, the mere mention of a minimum payment caused some consumers to lower their contributions.
“There’s a misunderstanding that the minimum payment is sort of an adequate payment,” Salisbury said. “If you pay the minimum payment every month, the cost to you is going to be enormous.”
Some credit card companies are hoping to use that dynamic to their advantage. Barclaycard is allowing some consumers to skip their minimum payment in December as “a holiday gift to you.” A note at the end of the offer, however, carries this warning:
“Remember, in a month where you decide not to pay your balance in full, interest charges will accrue.”